‘tis the season to curl up with some rich, flavorful brews.
As with many Colorado avid golfers, the winter months challenge me with a different kind of slope than the ones rated on courses. And like the 19th hole that caps off the previous four hours, a full day of skiing crescendos into my favorite winter pastime—the après-ski.
Despite having enjoyed freshly made draughts of local beers out of stoneware in Belgium, or samples of straight bourbon in Kentucky distilleries, I can hardly remember the names of those beverages. But I’ll be damned if I can’t recall the destinations and beverages shared at hole-in-the-wall establishments following a day on the mountain.
One winter staple of mine is New Belgium’s Cocoa Molé. My first sip of this beer came after a particularly cold and blustery day of skiing in Steamboat Springs several years ago. It was still too cold to enjoy our après-ski on the outdoor patio, so we made a beeline for the local liquor store.
I hate to admit to being swayed by a pretty label, but on that particularly gloomy, chilly day the festive sugar skull printed on the bottle definitely influenced my purchasing decision. The chocolate, cinnamon, and chilies meld together in a perfect harmony of warmth (or maybe that’s the 9% abv). A hint of sweetness balances out the spicy heat, and was a perfect accompaniment for that day, and I still seek out this mariachi band in a bottle every winter.
Ska Brewing out of Durango has its own molé beer, Autumnal Molé Stout, available in the fall. Autumnal Molé is lighter at 5.8% abv, which helps accentuate the spices, especially the heat. Being a stout, there’s a bit more roast than you will find in New Belgium’s Cocoa Molé, but with less body and not as rich.
Beer snobs may thumb their nose at pumpkin beers, but there’s a reason just about every brewery makes one, and their popularity seems to have no bounds. Pumpkins and their amber-hued beer companions provide visual reminders of the season, and the deep, rich flavors offer the warmth we seek during the colder months. Many breweries will overload their pumpkin beers with myriad spices, rendering the brew much too muddied in flavor or overly sweet.
What makes a perfect pumpkin beer though, is one that has balance, and also stands out in a sea of over-spiced ambers. Still reigning supreme in my opinion is Southern Tier’s Pumking out of Lakewood, NY. The beer is lusciously smooth, and drinks like a pumpkin pie. Vanilla, buttery crust, a hint of pie spices and some roastiness provide a mélange of flavors that make this 8.6% abv beer hard not to overindulge in. And lucky for us, it’s available in Colorado just before the beginning of autumn.
For a more local, but no less elusive pumpkin beer, Avery’s Rumpkin provides both the powerful flavors and high gravity to help you relax on the most bone-chilling of winter days. Loads of maltiness are evident in this 15-18% abv beer, but are smoothed out from an extensive aging period of six months in dark rum barrels. Roasted pumpkins from Boulder add even more body to this bold beer, along with some spice and roastiness.
Stouts typically dominate the lineup of taps during winter, and no other compares in terms of range and depth of flavor than North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout out of Fort Bragg, Calif.
Russian Imperial Stouts are brewed at higher gravities and bitterness levels than their dark counterparts. Their name comes from allegedly being favored by the Russian Imperial Court of the 1800s. Old Rasputin maxes out the categorical limits of this style, with intense flavors of roast, burnt sugars, bitter chocolate, and a hopping level of 75 IBUs. The beer pours as black as the soul of its namesake and leaves legs on the inside of a glass worthy of the most eloquent of wines.
If finding Old Rasputin proves as difficult as killing the mad monk was, Epic’s Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout out of Denver will ably fill in. Baptist takes Rasputin’s Russian imperial stout style and increases every parameter with the addition of cocoa nibs, coffee, and whiskey-barrel aging. “The coffee adds another element of roast to the beer without running the risk of developing a burnt or acrid flavor from the use of too many highly-kilned malts. It’s not bitter, and the whiskey flavors reveal themselves from the barrel aging, including that unmistakable boozy tang and smooth vanilla from the oak.
It’s difficult to stray from tradition, mostly due to the comfort it provides knowing that we are likely to have or share a positive experience from days past. There is nothing as powerful as the first instance in a tradition, so be resolute in trying something new, even if it’s just a slight variation in what you decide to pair with your family’s holiday dinner or where to grab that well-earned pint at the bottom of the mountain.